“86!” the stocky Navajo lady bellows. The Native woman is literally herding a group of 40 or so of us under a canopy. Just short of whipping and spurring us she demands control of the crowd. “86!” again she rings. I look at my receipt and oh, no; it’s me. “Oh hell!” I wonder. What rule did I break, am I being sent to the back the of line again, am I getting kicked out? I’ve tangled with this woman twice already and am certain not to survive the 3rd meeting. The process of boarding for Antelope Canyon is beginning.
I see amazing photos from Antelope Canyon and it’s high on my list of places to visit. I am not the only person drawn to Antelope Canyon for the photo opportunities, morning tours are booked weeks in advance. Mornings are preferable to photographers for the lighting it presents. My only option is the afternoon tour that I’m on today. As the canyons are on the Navajo Reservation the only access is with an authorized Navajo guide service.
“No Tour for You!”
Two consistent themes of my life are 1. I’m never late and 2. Nothing ever starts on time anyway. Those both are proven false today. Though I booked a week in advance, rules state I must be at the ticket window 45 minutes before the tour time. I arrive 30 minutes prior and Nazi Navajo almost gleefully tells me my ticket is no longer valid. “No, tour for you!” I plead my case and again am denied! Instructed to step away from the window, I’m crestfallen. I want this badly, I drove over 2 hours to get here AND it’s on my bucket list for God’s sake. Retreating to the back of the line, I begin to pout and strategize.
I watch as tourist after tourist is turned away for any number of reasons. “Backpack!, no tour for you!”. “Selfie stick!, no tour for you”. “All of your party must be present!, “no tour for you!” It seems infractions are being made up just to deny access. I watch and learn. I approach the window again and present my camera, tripod, drivers license and credit card. Feeling like I’m 19 again trying to pass off a fake ID, I’m granted access and instructed to go watch the show.
Navajo Hoop Dancer
In the dusty parking lot is a young Native beginning the Navajo Hoop Dance demonstration. His explanations of what we are to see are humorous and presented with a sense of pride. The physical stamina to perform the dance alone is impressive but to maintain control of the hoops while forming birds, insects, horses, and snakes is nothing short of amazing. My anxiety has nearly returned to normal when the cattle call begins.
Here We Go
“86?! Stand here” I’m directed to stand alone while the others are lined up in various groups. This whole process is a bit concerning and I’m more than uneasy. Nazi Navajo points to me then points to another younger Navajo lady standing in front of a dusty haggard Suburban.
The young Native American extends her hand and says “Hi, I’m Kimberly, let’s go”. Just the two of us jump into the behemoth of a vehicle and down the road toward the canyon entrance. Why I escape the rest of the crowd being loaded into vans and get my own personal escort I do not know. Maybe it was my persistence or maybe it was the pouting; probably just dumb luck. Several authorized Navajo tour operators converge at the outside of the canyon entrance. There may be 200 people now waiting to enter the canyon.
My guide grabs me and leads me ahead of the crowd. It’s another Navajo dance that only the tribespeople know, and I’m to let her lead. The guides orchestrate the crowds beautifully, giving those that paid extra for the photo tour their chance to get “The shot”.
I take a few steps into the canyon and turn back to see the entranceway just glowing. Wow, this is what I want to see, 5 seconds in and there it is. Kimberly a professed newbie photographer quickly rattles off “ISO 200, Aperture f8 and shutter .4 sec”. Whoa, wait, uh, hang on. I nervously fumble the dial trying to remember not only what she said but also how to do it on my camera. I know on the other side of that orange entranceway are 199 anxious people waiting.
Through the canyon, we go. The canyon walls are up to 100 feet tall. Looking up exposes all manner of light and shadows. Many of the outlines taking on identifiable forms that the guide points out.
Through it all, people are in and out walking in front of the camera and accidentally kicking tripod but somehow I never feel rushed. It’s a surreal feeling.
The canyon is maybe a 1/2 mile long; time reaching the end just flies by. Though I would have the opportunity to shoot more photos, I fold up my tripod and turn the camera off. For the return trip back through the canyon, I try to stop and appreciate that these canyons are millions of years in the making. Water has meticulously carved its way through time and sandstone cliffs to create these magnificent views.
It’s a wrap
I have to temper my initial reaction to he commando type boarding tactics. These Canyons are sacred grounds to the Navajo people. They open these areas up for our enjoyment and their livelihood. They are repaid by kids writing on the walls with crayons, ne’er-do-wells carving their initials in the stone, and one visitor actually sneaking in a loved one ashes to scatter throughout the canyon. This desecration requires a canyon closure and a medicine man to remove and transport the deceased’s spirit.
After my recent boating trip near here and today’s canyon tour, I’m an astounding two for two on my bucket list items in Northern Arizona. Both far exceeding expectations.
Returning back to base, I really enjoy discussing the Navajo traditions with Kimberly. I learn of her struggles to hang on to her culture. The grandparents that never learned English and the Navajo language she never learned from them. The mother that passed before she could pass on her rug making skills and the aunt that never finished teaching basketweaving to her before her spirit passed on. All are pretty somber reminders, as the sandstone can attest, that time waits for no one.